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After a long struggle, Plaza Vista is open near the Plaza

Updated: 2013-11-12T04:01:59Z

By KEVIN COLLISON

The Kansas City Star

Looking east from the ninth-floor terrace off the new Polsinelli board room at Plaza Vista, Russ Welsh was savoring the million-dollar view down 48th Street into the Country Club Plaza.

And on a recent chilly November morning, the law firm’s chairman had reason to celebrate.

After two years of construction, it was finally time to enjoy the crisply modern 10-story office tower, its muted contemporary interior brightened by 150 works of art and pierced by a hickory-trimmed spiral staircase dizzily descending from the eighth floor to the second.

The firm’s 450 local employees recently had completed their move from two buildings. The 132-room Hotel Sorella had just opened on the south side of the Plaza Vista development, and all was ready for the final flourish scheduled for today, the formal opening of Polsinelli’s offices.

“It’s been a long time coming but well worth the wait,” Welsh said.

A long time indeed.

It has been almost eight years since what was then called the West Edge project broke ground at 48th and Belleview Avenue in December 2005.

Barack Obama was a freshman senator from Illinois; Kay Barnes was mayor of Kansas City; and advertising executive Bob Bernstein was ecstatic over the unique 11-story office and seven-story hotel project that architect Moshe Safdie had designed for him, with Safdie’s signature grand atriums and multiple terraces stepped to create the impression of a “hillside village.”

It didn’t work.

The original $84.5 million project budget exploded. Construction stalled in 2008. Bernstein’s real estate entity, Trilogy Development, went bankrupt in 2009, and the unfinished eyesore wound up being taken over the next year by VanTrust Real Estate.

But nobody wanted Safdie’s office design with its dramatic eight-story atrium hogging much of the interior.

Polsinelli, bruised from Highwood Properties’ long battle to build a headquarters for the law firm in the heart of the Plaza, was interested. But the ultimate price was the demolition of the two-thirds-complete office building and construction of a more conventional office tower designed by 360 Architecture.

At the end of the day, well over $100 million in value disappeared in what became one of the most costly and drawn-out real estate debacles in Kansas City history. Only the shell of the hotel building and a 960-car underground garage remained from the original West Edge design.

But now Polsinelli has its headquarters, the Plaza has gained a 132-room boutique hotel and thousands of drivers whose daily commutes on Southwest Trafficway were disrupted by the perpetual construction zone are finally traveling unhindered.

It’s a fresh start for all concerned, Welsh said.

“The controversy over that initial proposal in the center of the Plaza is truly a distant memory,” he said.

“We were able to find a solution that worked for us and solved a problem (the unfinished West Edge) that was difficult at best. We’re good from here moving forward. It’s good for us, good for the city and good for the Plaza.”

It has been 40 years since the law firm now known simply as Polsinelli started on the Plaza with three lawyers in the old Plaza Theatre Building across from what is now Starker’s Restaurant. Polsinelli has since grown to have 680 lawyers nationwide in offices in 17 cities. Founder Jim Polsinelli, 70, said the Plaza “continues to be a vital piece of the firm’s DNA.”

“Our new office will serve as the headquarters for our national law firm and a building designed to maximize our ability to perform quality work for clients,” Polsinelli said.

The impetus for the new headquarters began five years ago when what was then Polsinelli Shalton Flanigan Suelthaus merged with Shughart Thomson & Kilroy. Polsinelli was on the Plaza at 700 W. 47th St., and Shughart was in downtown Kansas City at Twelve Wyandotte Plaza.

“Everybody likes it,” Welsh said of the new headquarters. “We’re all pleased to be together (in one building for the first time), and there are a lot of opportunities to collaborate.”

There are plenty of places to gather, from the large meeting room on the first floor that can accommodate more than 220 people, to the ninth floor, which has nine conference rooms, including the spacious boardroom and the adjoining 650-square-foot open terrace with that expansive Plaza view.

The ninth floor also is the visitors lobby, and a 21-foot-long artwork by Mary Ann Strandell of New York titled “The Moving Wall” graces one wall. It’s a multilayer painting that’s one of 150 pieces decorating the building, most of them by Kansas City artists. About a dozen were commissioned for the new building.

Welsh’s office on the ninth floor includes a semiprivate 225-square-foot balcony that offers the same Plaza view as the boardroom.

The feel of the interior is cool-contemporary, with marble and terrazzo-tile floors, muted tones and wood accents. Beside the modern art, the most dramatic element is the spiral staircase that swirls downward six levels through the core of the offices from the eighth floor.

“We wanted the design to convey that we’re a contemporary firm, we have energy, and we’re moving forward,” Welsh said.

The fourth floor is where the 1,400-square-foot attorney lounge is located, complete with fireplace and another outdoor terrace on the northwest corner at 48th and Belleview. It overlooks another sad chapter in the star-crossed history of the former West Edge.

Across 48th is the outline of the former JJ’s restaurant, destroyed in a natural gas explosion that killed one person and injured another 15 people on Feb. 19. All that remains is the stone entrance arch.

That explosion damaged the Plaza Vista project as well, shattering most of the newly installed glass curtain wall facing the doomed restaurant and costing millions of dollars to repair. The future of JJ’s remains up the air, but the owners say they hope to reopen.

Off the attorney lounge is a small law library. Because most reference information is available on computer, large libraries are a thing of the past. There is still plenty of paperwork, however, that needs to be stored.

The lowest level of the tower has a storage area with three miles of shelf space. It also has a state-of-the-art fitness area that includes treadmills equipped with computer screens and video monitors.

There’s a 114-seat cafeteria as well on the first level, which also has a terrace. It includes a kitchen that can provide food not only for employees but cater events at the adjoining conference center. Welsh said the firm celebrated the end of its fiscal year there Nov. 1 at an event that drew 250 people.

The exterior of the building is sparse and angular. The only decorative tones are several intricate inserts designed to resemble the grid work of the Alhambra palace in Granada, Spain.

“It’s intended to bring the feeling of the Plaza into the building,” said Mike Polk, director of facilities for Polsinelli.

When it comes to law firms, Polsinelli’s new office space trails only Shook Hardy & Bacon in size. Shook Hardy occupies a 24-story building at Crown Center.

Welsh praised VanTrust Real Estate, the owner of the building, and J.E. Dunn Construction, the contractor, for their work in completing the Plaza Vista to Polsinelli’s specifications. The firm has a 20-year lease on the property. Welsh also said 360 Architects had separate teams design the exterior and interior of the office tower.

About 25 percent of the space being leased by Polsinelli is unused and awaiting future growth.

“In the last five years we’ve become a national firm, and this is our national headquarters,” Welsh said. “This is a legacy that will be retained in Kansas City.”

To reach Kevin Collison, call 816-234-4289 or send email to kcollison@kcstar.com.

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